Doug Bruns

Masterclass of a Life Well Lived

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 2, 2009 at 12:36 am

A few years ago I attempted to write a work of extended fiction. I’d written a few short stories and essays, some of which found their way into print. I had been following Hemingway’s advice to ready myself for the long haul by working up to it, like a boxer training for a bout–or something appropriately Hemingwayesque to that manly effect. So, I began this “extended fiction” (why is it that the word novel seems so daunting and intimidating?) and set a course to explore the only, for me, truly compelling theme. To wit, How should a life be lived?

Once, many years ago, in a distant existence, in a parallel universe, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about entrepreneurship. I had walked in those shoes for a while with a modicum of success and someone foolishly thought I actually knew something about the subject. I wrote my chapter and adorned it with a awkward title about which I am now embarrassed. In essence, the chapter title, spoke to my belief that creativity trumps everything else, talent, motivation, timing and all the rest of it. In business, and in life, creativity rules.

Getting back to the novel, my character, a successful dot com-er (I was writing at the height of the dot com bubble) decides one day to cash out and hit the road, to set out, as Twain said, for territories unknown. This guy was the perfect foil. He had plenty of resources–i.e. money–no commitments, a sense of self that reached beyond his present situation, albeit however well-stoked he found himself, and nothing but time on his hands. The premise is quite simple: What would you do with your life if you could do anything you wanted? It is the most profoundly creative question a person can ask. At some point in your life-block of Carrera marble gets dropped across your path and someone hands you a hammer and chisel. What do you do? How do you chisel out a life? How do you create it? I didn’t know what I’d do, so I wrote a novel to figure it out.

The ultimate creative assignment is the masterclass in a life well lived. I wanted, in the writing of the novel, to tackle this most personal of challenges. And here’s what happened. Nothing. Nothing happened. My guy, the character in my novel, having money and time and motivation, well, he was a bust. I could develop no creative tension in the narrative. In other words, I couldn’t answer the question, what would I do, if I could do anything I wished with my life. Was there no creative tension to my existence?

This is not an exercise in navel gazing. (I dread the cliché above all else.) So the question above will remain purely rhetorical. My existence and its creative tension, or lack thereof, is of no matter. Here is the point. Life need be carved out of raw material–created, in essence–to be, upon Socratic inspection, well designed. It ain’t gonna just happen. Sartre said that everything in life must submit to art. Creativity is an expressed solution to an unasked question. My protagonist had no challenges, and therefore his life lacked the luster of a well-polished coat of creativity.

Make of it what you will. But know this: the act of creation is the purest of expression. Draped across the robust shoulders of life, it is at once profound and beautiful.

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